Salwa al-Neimi (photo: T. Langro)
Sexuality in Contemporary Arab Women's Literature

Of Personal Experience and Artistic Freedom

When Arab women write about sexual encounters, are they recounting their own personal experiences or are their descriptions born of their literary fantasy? And whatever the answer is, should one measure literature using a moral yardstick or should criticism focus on the content of the work alone? Rim Najmi asked a number of female Arab writers to share their thoughts on this matter

When it comes to descriptions of sexual or amorous encounters in their work, female Arab authors and poets are often asked whether they are recounting their own personal experiences.

Syrian author Salwa al-Neimi explains that when her novel The Proof of the Honey was first published in 2007, the first question put to her was whether the story in the novel was autobiographical. "As usual, I laughed and replied that everything I write is both real and invented." The novel caused a huge stir in the Arab world because it openly described the emotional and sexual life of an Arab woman.

Cover of Salwa al-Neimi's "The Proof of the Honey" (source: publisher)
Salwa al-Neimi's "The Proof of the Honey" caused a huge stir in the Arab world because it openly described the emotional and sexual life of an Arab woman

​​But what exactly did Salwa al-Neimi mean by this ambiguous answer? She makes no attempt to provide a more detailed explanation, preferring to remain vague: "It can mean a lot of things." Instead, she relates a rather amusing incident relating to this kind of question: "At a meeting with readers in Italy, female fans asked me if they could have the telephone number of the thinker." The thinker, in this case, is the hero of the novel, who is characterised by his particular virility and his tender dealings with the main female character.

"I am writing about my own experience of sexuality"

The Moroccan poet Ouidad Benmoussa has also focused on the body and sexuality in her poems, especially in the volume entitled "A Storm in a Body", which was published in Rabat in 2009.

Benmoussa openly admits that what she wrote about sexuality in this collection was based on her own experience: "Every description that does not come from one's own personal experience is lacking something significant."

During an interview with Qantara.de, the Moroccan expresses the opinion that personal experience is the "source of every form of writing. Real literature can only come from within. It is a question of honesty." She also added: "the experience of love is something perfectly natural; after all, love is the greatest of all feelings. God created us for love. The experience of sexuality is part of our existence and our being in this society, not just in terms of reproduction, but in terms of pleasure too."

The author of "A Storm in the Body" also emphasises that "when a woman writes so confidently and honestly about this matter, she gives her imagination free reign, which makes her imagination serious, confident and targeted and focuses it on timelessness."

That being said, Benmoussa does not want to force this attitude on other female writers who do not feel that women have to have experienced something personally in order to write about it: "I am not in principle against the argument that women don't have to write about their own experiences. I am just courageously stating my own opinion; I don't want to denounce anyone."

Ouidad Benmoussa (photo: private copyright)
Ouidad Benmoussa: "The experience of sexuality is part of our existence and our being in this society, not just in terms of reproduction, but in terms of pleasure too"

​​Staying with this subject, she adds: "I don't want to wrestle with the language. When I capture a moment on paper – regardless of whether it is an emotional or a sexual moment – the full beauty and honesty of this moment should reach the reader or the listener. If one cannot get a moment of personal experience across clearly and transparently, what is the point of writing literature in the first place? If you can't do it, it would be better not to write at all."

"Passing a moral judgement on literature is inacceptable"

The Syrian author Salwa al-Neimi believes that this question is put more frequently to female writers than it is to their male counterparts, especially when it comes to themes that create the impression of being based on personal experience, such as emotional and intimate experiences.

Laughing, she adds: "If I had written a book about political experiences, it would not have occurred to anyone to ask me whether these experiences were my own. Yet if I write about an experience that could potentially be construed as intimate, the question is automatically asked."

Al-Neimi is not in the least bit bothered if a conventional reader asks her this question. She explains it like this: "I am well able to differentiate between a curious reader, who would like to find out to what extent this experience was real or invented, and a literary criticism that takes place at this level. I don't think it is normal to be panned by a critic just because I wrote about sexuality or a personal experience. That is silly and superficial."

Since the publication of The Proof of the Honey, al-Neimi has repeatedly had to listen to criticism based solely on moral standards, which is why she vehemently rejects one-sided literary evaluation of this kind.

"When the book was published, I assumed that Arab literary criticism had been capable of differentiating between the person of the author and his literary oeuvre since the eleventh century, since Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, the Persian scholar of Arabic who is considered the father of Arab rhetoric. Now, on the other hand, some critics evaluate artistically free writing solely on the basis of morality. But I couldn't care less about people who do that."

"Are you jealous of a man made of paper?"

However, it is not just women who are confronted with the question of the relationship between personal experience and what they describe in their work.

Ahlam Mostaghanemi (photo: private copyright)
Writing out of a memory of love: Ahlam Mostaghanemi gained recognition through her novel "Memory in the Flesh"

​​The deceased Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), for example, who was famous as a poet of love (of the physical variety too), was asked the same question again and again even though he had stressed on a number of different occasions that he could count the number of times that he had really been in love on the fingers of one hand.

Writing in her anthology "nessyane.com", Ahlam Mostaghanemi says that a writer does not necessarily write about a current experience of love, but more out of a memory of love." In her novel Memory in the Flesh, Mostaghanemi addresses this question through Hayat, the protagonist, who is also a writer.

Hayat's first novel is dedicated to her lover, who is not as interested in the content of the book as he is in the man about whom Hayat wrote. He even goes as far as to ask her who he is. In reply, Hayat asks him: "Are you jealous of a man made of paper?" He counters: "Am I supposed to assume that he is just a product of your imagination?" to which Hayat concludes: "There is a difference between literature and the people about whom we write."

Rim Najmi

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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